The University of Florida recently decided to drastically shrink its computer science department, a move that will save the university around $1.4 million. At the same time, the university’s athletics budget went up by around $2 million. Although there has been a strong reaction against this move in the media, there have been those who supported the UF decision, saying that it was an expression of the free market. For instance, an article in The Atlantic noted that UF Athletics, as a nonprofit entity, returns part of its profit to the university and also receives generous contributions from alumni and others. This line of reasoning implies that athletics should not be cut, as they contribute directly to the college’s bottom line. However the argument being made is seriously flawed. Let’s explore why.
1. If you pay, you play: The root cause ascribed to the increase of the budget for athletics is the ability of athletics to earn money for the university. They are able to do so because they are set up as independent profit centers within the university. Thus, they are allowed to create their own revenue streams. On the other hand, academic departments cannot act independently and are not set up as independent profit centers. They have to go through the administration. For example, let’s say that the state of Florida makes a law that eliminates all taxes for small high-tech businesses. Suddenly, there is a huge demand for short courses on technology and entrepreneurship. UF has both renowned entrepreneurs who are keen to teach courses on entrepreneurship as well as computer science professors. Ideally, UF’s business and computer science departments would be well-positioned to contribute to UF’s bottom line. However, the two UF departments cannot do so. They are not able to act as a profit center - - whereby they could offer courses, make a profit, and then return some of those profits to UF. Athletics, on the other hand, has more independence and is able to earn profits and return that profit to UF. Therefore, the comparison does not fully work. If departments need to act as profit centers to justify their existence, they should be able to set themselves up as such. But computer science was never given that chance, and hence, the principle should not be applied to them.
The question then arises -- if computer science were indeed set up as an independent profit center within UF, would it be able to make a profit? In short, yes. Computer science can prove its worth in the free market. Let’s look at the data. Enrollments in undergraduate computer science programs rose 9.6 percent in the 2011-12 school year, the fourth straight year of increase, according to the Computing Research Association. Computer science graduates now get more offers of employment than any other major. The offer rate for computer science majors increased 13.8 percent in 2011 from the previous year.
2. Separate and equal: Education and athletics should not be treated as tradable commodities, and most definitely not by institutions of higher learning. Just as NASCAR should retain its focus on racing and the NBA on basketball, an educational institution should be committed to education, as that is the sole reason the institution was established.
Tim Finin, professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says, “Some see no problem with the University of Florida saving $1.4 million by cutting its CS program while increasing its budget for athletics by $2 million. While universities can make a lot of money running entertainment-oriented sports programs, it’s not their primary job.”
Most recently, UF officials have said that because of all the pushback from the public and the students, they will prepare a revised proposal before May 11. [Editor’s note: No sign of that revised proposal as of May 10.] This will help them meet the deadline for budget plans from colleges, following which there will be a final vote by the trustees. In the meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott has created a “Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform” panel to help remake Florida’s higher education system. He said, “The state has a vested interest in ensuring its higher education system produces world-class talent to serve as engaged citizens and meet the demands of Florida’s emerging knowledge-based economy”. A win for CS and technology disciplines? We shall have to wait and see.
One area that the panel should focus on is cost savings in higher education. All public universities, and even private ones, are pressed for money (Forbes says that funding for UF alone has been cut 30 percent over the last six years). Cost-efficiency is a must in this financially pressed environment. Innovative application of technology can be an antidote. In our previous blog in the Washington Post, we spoke about how open, online education models can reduce expenses, while increasing revenues. A financial surplus earned through moving to open education models can help the in-demand programs to grow, and even protect the programs that are under-enrolled. The potentially large student body can provide a diversity that stirs innovation and learning.
Ironically enough, in UF, the key enabler to efficiency and cost-cutting is now on the chopping block.